Earlier this week, a friend invited me to a small meet-and-greet event with Republican presidential possibility and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman. I'd enjoy the chance to see the better Mormon candidate in the flesh as much as the next gal, but there was a catch: The price of admission was a small donation. I don't mind spending $100 to meet a guy who seems like he might be a viable less-bad-than-other-Republicans option. What I do mind is having that fact splashed all over my Google search results. And splashed it would be, thanks to state and federal laws that force candidates to periodically reveal their donors, and sites that take that donor data and make it handily searchable and (more importantly) indexable by search engines.
As a journalist I love the gush of data that the government forces into sites like Open Secrets. It makes my job easier. But that kind of forced disclosure should give private citizens the heebie jeebies—and make everyone think twice about giving. To happen across my campaign contributions (don't bother, there are none) you would have to get pretty deep into my Google results. But for people who don't have much of an Internet presence, campaign contributions increasingly pop up into their top 10 search results. You know, the results that employers and blind dates are likely to see before they even meet you.
And juicy information like that doesn't go away. In fact, this particular set of information is unlikely to decay or fade away into the grey mush of the web. Not when the folks at Sunlight Foundation are creating tools like Inbox Influence. Announced yesterday, it works like this: You install a little add-on in your browser and voila, a sidebar shows up disclosing every campaign contribution of every person you email with. Ever.
Here's a little explainer:
Journalists enjoy being paranoid about disclosing which candidates they support, which is silly. (We here at Reason have no such hangups.) Not admitting your biases doesn't make them go away. But a very public record of moolah moving from the Mangu-Ward bank account into Huntsman's coffers would be easy to misinterpret—and disclosure laws don't let me attach an asterisk to that money that labels it as curiosity cash rather than endorsement dollars.
So I don't get to meet Huntsman, Huntsman doesn't get my money, my friend's party is one person smaller, and everybody loses. And meanwhile, I just spent half an hour donation-stalking the friends and enemies in my inbox. Consider any thought of future political giving—a form of political speech in my book—well and truly chilled.
Also, speaking of Mormons and campaign finance disclosure: this.